Elizabeth Raby’s Ransomed Voices entices the reader to turn the page the way a friend entices a friend to wait on the next word (every next word) in a conversation. The best memoirists are neither self-conscious nor self-absorbed — and Raby is among the best on both counts. We come to know her voice in the intersection of stories, skillfully woven the way one expects an accomplished lyric poet to weave them — with an eye on what can be made of seemingly inexplicable collisions as well as those we think we have orchestrated.
There is ransom in Raby’s voices, and that is something she not only gives but also receives.
In an introduction entitled “Singing the World,” she writes of saving the voices of ancestors — saving their lives and her own. But, as readers of her poetry already know, she has an ear for silences without which there is no music. It is her ability to listen to the voices she has encountered that opens a space in which they save her. As she discloses early on, she comes to poetry out of an experience of losing her voice: a sinus infection led to laryngitis, and, as a singer, she “fell from song into silence.” She “became more inward.” Then, “a year or so later,” she wrote her first poem (an act that is consistent with inwardness, with becoming subjective, as Kierkegaard put it).
This reads like a sort of dance, and it sets the pattern for the book. The Emily Dickinson poem that inspires Raby’s title names silence the way one might name a demon if one is intent on casting it out: it is “all we dread.” It “is Infinity. / Himself have not a face.” Facing silence Himself, Raby sings a world. And it is a pleasure to witness that singing in the dance of this book.
Silence is not the opposite of sound. It is the opposite of “face.” All we dread, faceless, robs us of our voice, like the whirlwind overpowering Job. Job’s redemption lies not in resignation before overwhelming power but in turning to face it.
In this sense, memoir functions the way prayer functions, at least to the extent that, as Theodor Adorno suggests, prayer is connected with the “name” of God (which I take to be closely related to Emily Dickinson’s connection of dread with the facelessness of Infinity). The antidote for dread is facing silence, finding the form of the name. Adorno makes the connection in an essay called “Music, Language, and Composition,” where he writes “What music says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form [Gestalt] of the name of God. It is demythologized prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings” (Essays on Music, 114).
Ransomed Voices is, Raby writes, “an exploration of my road to poetry and to a better understanding of myself through the stories of my ancestors” (12). It is that and more. As is so often the case, one makes the road by taking it — and whether the poet makes one’s way to poetry or poetry makes its way to the poet is always a fascinating question. But I think what is particularly interesting in this memoir is that the ransom of the voices (saving the voices and the voices saving) is inextricably connected with a poet finding her way back to music — and, in retrospect, a singer who fell from song to silence finding song again in the process of becoming a poet. That speaks volumes about poetry as music, and it affords considerable insight into Raby’s work as a poet.
And, as is so often the case with a well-crafted memoir, this one affords considerable insight into the time and place of its subject (the one dancing and the one it dances about).
Raby begins not with herself but with her mother wanting another child, coming to know (as she has known before) that coming to love a person takes time. And with a journey, introducing us to relatives from Burlington, Vermont all the way to California and back (not so far off the road Jack Kerouac followed just a few years later). As there is not one story, there is not one voice; and that rings true. The first section begins with the mother’s I, in both narrative prose and poetry. It continues with the I of a very young Elizabeth, in Burlington, Vermont, in 1943, then on the way with her mother and brother to stay with relatives in Tucson — again, in narrative prose and poetry. A series of relatives speaks in first person, in prose and in poetry. Raby also ransoms the voices of relatives via newspaper accounts and letters. We begin to know her through them, and we come to know them in the way we often come to know strangers — through bits and pieces of private testimony made public by choice or by chance.
Raby’s voice grows more distinct as the book goes on, and this parallels the way memory is made in the maturation of a child. It never stops being a social process, but — in language familiar from the introduction — it moves “inward.” It is possessed. It is consolidated in time as the child says “I” with greater confidence and consistency. The earliest memories are most often stories told by others, the “we” through which “I” am. Later, memories still take shape in stories, but they are as likely to begin as stories we tell as stories we hear from others. Raby wisely avoids making this a strictly linear progression. She continues to draw on first person accounts in numerous voices, and she continues to move fluently between prose and poetry. She intertwines voice with place — Burlington, Luxembourg, Vassar, High Point, Stroudsburg, New York. And she lets time flow backward as well as forward, the way we experience it in our memories, our dreams, and the telling of our tales (to ourselves as well as to others), the way it moves in lyric poetry.
Especially striking to me is the short chapter titled “The Second Coming: Burlington, 1946-1949,” which begins “As a very young child I closely identified with Jesus. I thought I might be He, resurrected” (65). This is a charming, self-contained, little piece on childhood egocentrism. But it is also a pivotal moment in the memoir that sets up Raby’s reflection on a deepening religious understanding that makes her (wisely, I think) wary of “saviors.” She wryly comments at the beginning of this piece that “at that age I didn’t realize being female made me unfit for certain occupations — savior, for example” (65).
She moves quickly in this short piece from the perspective that “Jesus, a living presence to me, and I both understood things that others did not” to giving up on “attempts to bring people around to Jesus’ and my point of view” (65). She “understood Jesus’ loneliness,” and that understanding is part of what propels her from being the center of the universe to being one consciousness among others. All of this is deftly connected with her developing relationship with her parents: “I think I confused Mother with Almighty God, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, She who did not permit argument” (66). And “I had an easier time understanding my father. He often raised his voice. God did not yell; therefore, my father was not God but just a regular man. Unlike Mother, he made mistakes. I was sure I understood him. He must understand me back…” (67). Out of this cluster of relationships — with her mother, with her father, with Jesus — she comes (because she cannot oppose her mother) to “know it was wrong to feel proud about the nice thing someone said about me. I should never forget that I was nothing special” and “as an alternative, determined to be as selfless as Jesus, I wandered the neighborhood looking for people who needed my special understanding” (68). From relationships close to home out into the neighborhood is an apt way to describe the trajectory of an evolving social self. Raby’s is a special understanding, and this little theological vignette is one of many that help us get a sense of how it comes to be as she comes to be at home in the world.
There are fascinating variations on this theme in Section Four, “Love and History” and “On the Fringe: Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, 1968 / High Point, North Carolina, 1963.” “Love and History” begins with the story of her mother’s parents coming to live with her family in Burlington. It is still 1946, near the beginning of the time of Elizabeth’s “theological confusion.” The relationship with her grandmother includes a shared fantasy world that was clearly a delight to both. But the story telling game Elizabeth describes as “playing Peter” comes to an abrupt end when she brings her friend Lynne to join. Her grandmother (Bessie) is embarrassed and suddenly has no time. She says “I’m too old to be playing games. We shouldn’t waste our time with such nonsense. I don’t want to hear any more about Peter” (96). Again, this dances on the edge between home and world and helps to shape Elizabeth’s attitude toward imagination. In the construction of the memoir, it provides the occasion for going back to Grandmother’s story — in a poem titled “The Story I Didn’t Tell Elizabeth” and a bit of prose narrative entitled “The Story Bessie Did Tell,” both spoken in Bessie’s voice. This story carries the narrative to Nebraska and Iowa and reminds us just how close the unsettling experience of settling (including homesteading in a remote corner of Nebraska) is for people who were young adults in the 1960s. Elizabeth hears some of the stories associated with settling. Others she must imagine. And the interplay of what has been heard with what can be imagined, of what is told and what is not, forms the social memory we identify as history. In the United States (as elsewhere) “our” history has been forged at least in part in a struggle over which stories will be heard and who will tell them. The art of the memoir lies in selecting and arranging stories as much as in making them. The sequence Raby constructs from a hard lesson in lines between private and public (or circles around the many publics we inhabit) through a history of unsettling settling to descriptions that turn on where she stood during public events during a period marked by two assassinations — all related to imaginaries and imagination — is illuminating. That the Ghost Dance and her Quaker ancestors (on at least two fringes) have a prominent place is telling.
Raby ends Ransomed Voices with a poem in the form of a letter to her brother. “This morning,” she writes, “when I ate my yoghurt, / unsweetened, runny, I thought of the culture, / dried on a clean cotton handkerchief, our father / brought home from Lebanon, fifty-four years ago. / As long as he lived he kept it alive, a fresh / batch every week or so in the stainless pot you use / now to continue his tradition” (228). Yoghurt is exactly the right image for culture, a noun as well as a verb, a living organism that nourishes and, as the letter says in the last line, comforts.
It comforts, and it illuminates, bringing Raby closer to her Quaker ancestors than she might have expected, widening, as the best memoirs do, a circle of friends — and for that we are most grateful.
reviewed by Steven Schroeder, Chicago
Elizabeth Raby. Ransomed Voices. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Red Mountain Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9855031-2-3.